Building a Better QR Code

A handful of tech startups are developing alternatives ... but will people know they’re there?

QR codes—those odd black-and-white checkered boxes that smart-phone users can scan for more information—are being threatened with obsolescence by a gang of ambitious new startups armed with flashier image-scanning technology.

At the front of the pack is Aurasma, a well-funded augmented reality company—spun out of British software giant Autonomy—that’s aiming to make its code the go-to platform for getting smartphones to recognize products as triggers for virtual content.

Right now, Aurasma is giving away its app to users and code to developers for free—which has helped them draw more than 2 million downloads to date. Point your iPhone at one of the Dunhill ads outside the luxury clothier’s New York store, for example, and the model in the ad will start talking to you.

Blippar, a similar image-scanning and augmented reality app, also U.K.-based and launched in June, has worked on ad campaigns for Cadbury, Jack Daniels, and mega grocer Tesco. The advantages for marketers of using this new tech rather than QR codes is largely a matter of aesthetics. Rather than marring creative with images that resemble Rorschach inkblots, agencies and brands can use ads or brand logos to point smartphones toward additional information.

Proponents argue it’s not just about creating prettier mobile URLs, but also fostering wider applications. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed as a QR code killer,” says Jessica Butcher, Blippar’s marketing manager. “We really want to show that image recognition can do a lot more than that.”

Still, these startups face some of the same obstacles that have hobbled QR codes, chiefly that users have to actually know they can interact with a picture in a glossy mag or bus shelter poster (Aurasma and Blippar both address this with thumbnails indicating an image can be scanned). They also need the right stuff on heir phones to do so. While comScore estimates that in June, 14 million U.S. adults had scanned QR codes, that’s only 6.2 percent of the mobile audience, although the number of users has been growing rapidly over the past year and a half, according to QR company Scanbuy.

Other companies are leveraging easier-to-use image recognition tech to tap into the mobile market. Pepsi recently announced that fans could snap photos of the X Factor logo on its brand’s soda bottles and trade them for access to content and prizes. The promotion, powered by Boston-based Pongr, doesn’t require an app, but instead scans and filters the photos that users simply send to them.

“We particularly like the Pongr technology because it allows millions more of our consumers to engage via our products than if we were restricted to QR codes and QR readers,” says Shiv Singh, PepsiCo Beverages global head of digital.

But even as these new firms strive to kill or circumvent the QR code, they’re indebted to it, says Lauren Offers, Aurasma’s director of marketing. QR codes have “gotten people comfortable with the idea of taking your phone and pointing it at some kind of image.”

Now they just need to know which pictures to point at.


@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.